If Rod Barclay or other firefighters get the call that a house is ablaze in the north-western NSW town of Warren, chances are they won’t bother to put it out.

“Our priority is to save lives first, save water second,” Barclay says on Thursday outside Warren’s two-tanker fire station.

Should one of the town’s typical three-bedroom weatherboard homes ignite, Fire and Rescue NSW crews will only turn their hoses on the fire if they have to rescue anyone inside. Otherwise it will be sacrificed and water used merely to spray neighbouring homes if flames threaten to spread.

“Warren is the first location in which we’re undertaking this new strategy,” says Gary Barber, the Dubbo-based Fire & Rescue commander. “We could easily waste a couple of thousand litres on a house that’s going to be lost,” he says. “That water can certainly be used much better elsewhere in the community.”

Warren, nestled beside the Macquarie River and midway between Brisbane and Melbourne, is at the epicentre of the worst drought to hit that region of inland NSW since European settlement.

Not only is the town a gateway to one of Australia’s most important wetlands – the fast desiccating Macquarie Marshes – but it is also the last point to which the Macquarie River will flow for possibly many months. Last week,  the NSW government ordered a lifting of the main weir at Warren to ensure communities fed by a diversion channel won’t run out of water.

Peter Vlatko, the general manager of Cobar Shire Council, which covers towns almost totally dependent on that channel says conditions were now well past a worst-case scenario. “All of a sudden – holy shit!” he says. “Now it’s out of the ballpark.”

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